For most Americans familiar with Italian Jewry, the images that linger come from Vittorio De Sica's evocative 1971 film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the Academy Award-winning picture based on Italian writer Giorgio Bassani's prize-winning 1962 novel. Set in Bassini's picturesque hometown of Ferrara. Garden mixed the beauty of provincial Italy, and the allure of gorgeous young people at ease, with a slowly mounting anxiety--the creeping horror by which Italy in 1938 turned on its Jews, and captured, killed or deported some 9,000 of them.
De Sica portrayed the wealthy and aristocratic sister and brother Micol and Alberto Finzi-Contini in their tennis whites, largely ignoring changing times amid the majestic poplars of their lush estate. They invited newly restricted middle-class Jewish friends to party behind their high stone walls, capturing the turning point at which Italy's assimilated Jews became outcasts.
Now Ferrara, a beguiling small city located on the misty plains of Emilia-Romagna, about 55 miles southwest of Venice, is home to a new museum--the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (Museo Nazionale dell'Ebraismo Italiano e della Shoah) or MEIS. Opened just two years ago in the former two-story brick prison at Via Piangipane 82 where Bassini was once incarcerated by the Fascists, the museum drew some 50,000 visitors last year.
The museum came to Ferrara in a circuitous way. In 2000, the Italian government joined the United Nations and several other countries in establishing January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In April 2003, Parliament funded, to the tune of some 47 million euros, the creation of an Italian Holocaust Museum, originally slated for Rome. Subsequent discussions within the government and with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities convinced officials that their vision of a Holocaust museum was too narrow. They then decided that the museum, while paying special attention to the Holocaust, should tell the entire story of Jews in Italy. In December 2006, Parliament amended the 2003 law, creating a national museum. When the then mayor of Rome determined that his city would be better off with a municipal Shoah museum, officials decided to build the museum in Ferrara, a city in which Jews had once prospered.
"We are not a Jewish museum," says MEIS's director, Simonetta Della Seta. "It's important for me to say this. We are an Italian national museum dealing with the Jewish experience.... We have a mission by statute, which is spreading the knowledge of the experience of the Italian Jews for 2,200 years." The goal, she adds, is to "tell the story of such a long and continuous relationship between a minority and a majority. You're actually sending a message to the present that dialogue is possible. And this is very important in Europe today."
Delia Seta, who is Jewish, studied at Rome's La Sapienza university and earned an MA from Brandeis on a Fulbright and a joint PhD from Brandeis and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writing on contemporary Italian Judaism. After working for a time as a journalist, she became a diplomat, serving as senior adviser to the Italian ambassador to Israel. With her short-cropped hair, bright red-framed glasses and no-nonsense insistence on accuracy in everything the museum does, Della Seta makes it clear that Italian Fascism, and the city's famed chronicler, Bassani, will never constitute her museum's marquee story. "The museum is located in Ferrara," she says. "Giorgio Bassani was a Jew who was born here. He was a great writer. Of course, there has to be a relationship between the museum and Bassani. But Ferrara had other important Jews, like Isaac Lampronti, a 16th-century rabbi who wrote an anthology of the Talmud that's still in use." Thus her task is to acknowledge the influence of Bassani's fictional...